Story as Soul Food

by Lorraine Calbow.

Teaching for over 20 years, I’ve learned to trust in the power of story. I have observed first hand that metaphor invokes and is indeed the language of the soul. Story, an elongated metaphor, allows indirect learning to occur because each person gets to decide what is relevant and meaningful.
Indirect learning is what attracted me to storytelling. My involvement in storytelling propelled me to write a book that turned out to be stories of my journey from fear to love. In late November 2000, I realized I needed a wider audience to deliver the messages in my book. In meditation, I created an open space and asked for help.

“Leave your story better than you found it.” M.H. Ward

By mid-December, the President of the National Institute for Leadership Development and the Early Childhood Coordinator for the Phoenix Elementary School District #1 began a trickle that developed into a tidal wave of presentations and individual counseling sessions. My wider audience was educators who worked with students from pre-K to college. I had an opportunity through telling stories to bring the authentic self into the educational workplace.

I often found myself telling “Finding the Camel Within.” It is a transformation story. I begin with “The Camel that Dances” from Arnold Lobel’s book, Fables (Harper Collins, 1980). This is a story about a camel that practices diligently to become a ballet dancer. During a recital, her camel friends laugh at her. She denies their distasteful comments and continues to dance because it brings her satisfaction. I contrast this story with several personal experiences from childhood where I allowed my siblings and a choir director to take away my passion to sing. I tell of the long journey to overcome my negative image and regain my desire to sing.

I am always surprised by the response of the audience. From a group of administrators, I heard such comments as “I am going to begin playing the piano again,” “It was the nun who told me I can’t sing,” “You told my story,” and “I have a whole herd of camels within.” One media director told my “Finding the Camel Within” story to his staff and played his saxophone afterwards as a way of reclaiming his passion.

The most amazing reaction I got was from a group of 5th and 6th graders from a prevention program that uses story for youth at risk. They came to South Mountain Community College Storytelling Festival and heard me tell the story. Going home in the van, the group leader told me that the children began talking about the camels they had within them. It touched my heart that my story had opened up a space for them to share. It was sad that they were wounded at such a young age. But when I think back, I was their age when my passion for singing got buried.

Most of the time when I tell the “Finding the Camel Within,” I give an assignment afterwards. I ask the participants to make a list of the passions left behind due to listening to external voices or being too busy. I give them an opportunity to reclaim a desired passion. I love watching the energy in the room increase as participants reconnect to the power of forgotten hopes and dreams.

Another story I find myself telling is “Grow- ing -up Asian in America,” a personal transformation story that deals with finding my identity. Essentially, I wanted to be like everyone else but I couldn’t because I look different. The issues and reactions that come forth from this story are interesting to observe. One African American student thanked me for clarifying her need to be around other African American students. A young Hispanic female in an all Anglo class stared at me the whole time I told my story. The softness in her eyes and the relaxation in her body told me that she was no longer alone because someone else understood what it meant to be different. A couple came up to me; a Caucasian woman and her African American husband. She stood in front of me with tears in her eyes. Her husband stood close to steady her, as she struggled to say these words, “Our daughter went through a similar experience.” She went on to relay what it was like for her daughter to be half Black and White.

In three individual counseling sessions, I told the story of Parzival – The Quest of the Grail Knight (Katherine Paterson, Puffin, 2000). Parzival’s fate is to save the Fisher King, but he fails the test because he adheres to the knight’s social code rather than listening to his own voice of curiosity about the strange events parading before him. After years of overcoming challenges, he is given a second chance, and he does the right thing.

Three young women in their thirties, all with abusive backgrounds, came seeking relief from anxiety. All have had therapy. I told them the story of Parzival, and then we discussed the parallels between Parzival and themselves. With life experiences, Parzival grew in maturity to ask the question “What ails thee?” Each person’s face lit up and the heaviness that they came in with was gone. I could see that they had a working metaphor to assist them through their anxiety. One of the young women said with exuberance that she was surprised that she hadn’t heard about Parzival before and that she would never forget this story.

I have learned over many years of teaching and presenting that story is magic and requires these critical elements from a teller – a genuine voice, a meaningful connection to the story, and a willingness to empower the audience to hear what is right for them. When these elements are present in a teller, it is easy to offer a story. Offering means there is no looking back to see what others are doing with the wisdom from the story, unless asked to stay for further clarification. Free of the obligation to serve as an expert allows the authentic voice to be heard.

Furthermore, setting time aside for quiet listening can deepen the relationship between teller and the story. In daily meditation, inner truths have an opportunity to surface and are expressed through a story. For me, being still has allowed my authentic voice to expand the truth of my childhood memories into complete stories.

Having given over twenty presentations since January 2001 to educators, students, and attorneys, I am convinced that story, an elongated metaphor, has all the necessary ingredients to engage the mind and heart to speak directly to the authentic self within each of us. I have seen audience after audience, listening to story, relax and go quietly into their own experience. It is in the listening to story where healing takes place because metaphor is the language of the soul.

Originally published in Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 3, 2002

Lorraine Lum Calbow, M.A. in Counseling. Counselor and teacher at South Mountain Community College and wrote This Little Light of Mine: Remembering the Light Within.

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